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In Justin Peck’s ‘Illinoise,’ Dance On and Feel It

In Justin Peck’s ‘Illinoise,’ Dance On and Feel It

Justin Peck was around 17 when he first heard the Sufjan Stevens album “Illinois,” an epic paean to the state, nearly two dozen tracks brimming with orchestral indie rock, dense, lyrical wistfulness and sometimes obscure local history. This listening experience came long before Peck wanted to make dances, before he was even a professional dancer.

But “Illinois” urged him to move. “It was an instantaneous, illuminating thing that I felt like it was so danceable,” said Peck, now the resident choreographer and artistic adviser at New York City Ballet. “And it is so rare to find someone who can conjure that, especially someone who’s alive right now.”

Ever since, Peck, 36, has found artistic inspiration in Stevens — “the voice in music that has led me down paths further than I’ve ever gone before,” he said.

The two collaborated regularly, including on “Year of the Rabbit,” the ballet that launched Peck as a choreographer, in 2012. Not long after they began working together, Peck, hoping to experiment with storytelling forms, and influenced by dance-pop productions like Twyla Tharp’s “Movin’ Out,” asked if he could make a theatrical piece set to “Illinois.” Stevens took nearly five years to agree.

Almost five years later, the result is “Illinoise,” a project that is every bit as ambitious and genre-defying as its soundtrack: a narrative dance musical that combines a coming-of-age story, a snapshot of queer identity and a meditation on death, love, community, history, politics and zombies.

Growing up, Peck said, the arts, especially theater, gave him a sense of belonging. He framed “Illinoise” through a protagonist who seeks out the big city, “finding his tribe and his voice and his sexuality — all of these things that a lot of us go through, especially those of us who have moved to a place like New York from smaller or more conservative areas.”

The choreography weaves together playful punk energy and tap dancing, funky solos and yearning pas de deux, with a cast whose members include ballet dancers and former contestants on “So You Think You Can Dance.” After sold out, rapturously received performances at Bard College and at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, “Illinoise” runs March 2-26 at the Park Avenue Armory, with an eye toward expanding to bigger stages, like Broadway.

“It feels like the most broadly appealing thing that I have actually ever worked on,” said Jackie Sibblies Drury, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who signed on to help shape the story, which has no dialogue. “But the entire process of it has felt so intimate and personal.”

This is despite a cast of 16 and an orchestra of 14, with three vocalist-musicians who bring their own non-Sufjan tones, including Shara Nova, also known as My Brightest Diamond, who was part of the original recording of “Illinois.”

“Illinois” was Stevens’s breakthrough album, and since its 2005 release, it has entranced fans like Drury, who associates it with a move to Chicago in her early 20s, at a moment when she was determining whether her then boyfriend could be her husband (he is). “It feels like the album wants you to live your life to it,” she said.

It’s also on repeat in dance studios — not just Peck’s — especially during improvisations, said Ricky Ubeda, a performer in the show. “It’s just so dynamic,” he said, “and his voice is so felt, that it’s easy to let that move through the body.”

Ubeda, who won “So You Think You Can Dance” in 2014, plays Henry, the central character in “Illinoise.” He leaves home and meets up with a crew of young friends over a lantern campfire, like a minimalist Wes Anderson scene. They share stories — the dances — from their journals. Henry is reluctant to open up at first, though he happily scribbles in his book as the vocalists sing: “Are you writing from the heart?”

That’s a lyric from the jubilant track “Come On! Feel the Illinoise! (Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition / Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream),” which plays in an ensemble sequence whose choreography pops with Jerome Robbins-style joy.

The show begins with Henry on a blanket, spooning with his partner, Douglas (Ahmad Simmons). Both performers worked on the 2018 Broadway revival of “Carousel,” which earned Peck a Tony Award for choreography. He got in touch with them when “Illinoise” was in its earliest stages. “He took us for a walk, and talked us through his vision for his piece,” Ubeda said. “He didn’t really have the answers to what it would become. It was like, how do we tell the story so it was felt and seen, without words?”

Costumed in a baseball hat, shorts and a backpack, with a movement style that is both lithe and emotionally bending, Ubeda, 28, has a Stevens vibe — though Henry wasn’t intended to be a Sufjan stand-in, said Peck, for whom the project was not biographical, but personal. “There’s a lot of parallels to things I’ve gone through and people I’ve lost, as a young person in the world,” he said.

For Ubeda, too: “As a queer person, I’ve been in Henry’s shoes, falling in love with someone who loves you, but doesn’t love you in that way” — a teenage rite-of-passage, he said.

Stevens, 48, has not been actively involved in the production. He announced last fall that he had Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that left him unable to walk; he was undergoing treatment and expected to recover, he said in a statement. An intensely private artist, he also shared on social media last spring about the death of his partner, Evans Richardson, a museum administrator — publicly addressing his sexuality for the first time in the process. Though Stevens had been in discussions with the “Illinoise” team about the music, Richardson’s death derailed his participation, company members said. (Through a representative, Stevens declined an interview request.)

The composer and musician Timo Andres — also a previous Stevens collaborator — created the arrangements, which include interludes from the album that have not been performed live, Andres said.

For the stage version, he tried to keep the DIY spirit of the recording, which was made with many of Stevens’s friends, often in ad hoc studios around New York. It’s “quite orchestral, but also quite intimate and quite homespun,” Andres said.

The music also has a grand lushness, he said, as though it wanted to expand beyond its aural container: “It’s like hearing the New York Philharmonic in a high school gym or something. It’s bursting at the seams.”

Even in a production of this size, he couldn’t match some of the album sounds (“We’re not going to hire four oboe players just for this one moment”), so he relies on the musicians, who perform onstage, to convey the complexity with multiple instruments.

Nova plays the electric guitar and sings, along with Elijah Lyons and Tasha Viets-VanLear. The vocalists wear translucent, multicolor butterfly wings, in homage to the costumes on the “Illinois” tour. (A creative polymath, Stevens stitched those wings himself, out of kites, Nova said.)

In some ways, Nova is the institutional memory of “Illinoise.” But decoupling this performance from her experience making songs like the piercing “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” with Stevens — “I remember crying at that recording session with him,” she said — has been intense, especially as she worries about her friend after his traumatic year.

What has helped is connection with the dancers — the singers often lock eyes with them, which she called “thrilling” — and the realization that the music can endure, apart from Stevens.

“I mean, you can’t even look at the audiences because as far as we can see, people are crying,” Nova said. “This is why we all come to theater, is just to have a space to feel feelings that we don’t see or can’t express in the world.”

For Peck, translating the details of this beloved but complicated album into dance and narrative left him wondering how literal to make certain moments. The creators erred on the side of legibility: During “Casimir Pulaski Day,” which references “cancer of the bone,” the dancer Gaby Diaz appears with an IV bag and her partner (Ben Cook) rends his chest.

“This show is a little scary for me because it does explore darker themes and darker experiences,” said Peck, noting that his choreography often hums with elation instead. (“It’s kind of annoying, actually — even if I try to not put that in, instinctually, it just, like, filters into it.”)

But in one of his last conversations with Stevens about the project, the musician reminded him to peel back the layers of the album — “this bright joyous thing” — and lean into its depths.

Jessica Dessner, an artist, writer and former dancer — and sister of the Stevens pals Bryce and Aaron Dessner of the National — introduced Stevens to Peck (at Peck’s request) more than a decade ago. She said that for Stevens, dance turned into a natural extension of his multilevel work, which includes illustration and film. “He really just saw it as another emanation of this universe that he creates with all of his projects,” she said.

Coming into the production as a non-dancer, Drury found herself relating to its emotional beats, like a moment when Henry and Douglas, as a love-struck couple, break through a cacophony and do a simple box step slide, holding hands and breathing, deeply, together, with their eyes closed. “It makes me cry every time I see it,” she said.

Given his stature in the dance world, Peck naturally attracted high-level collaborators and performers. Execution mattered, but empathy was paramount. The hope, he said, is that the show “helps people understand the world, or understand themselves, their relationships or the idea of loss a little bit more, exactly what theater did for me, especially as a lonely young kid.”

The intention resonated, even in the company members’s rehearsal cheer: “Feel it!” they cried.

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